My favorite Hitchcock movie is Rear Window, a perfect mix of mystery, romance, social commentary, and humor. (And that’s not even including Grace Kelly’s beauty and costumes!) Jimmy Stewart spies on his neighbors from his NYC apartment during a summer when he’s stuck in a wheelchair with an up-to-his-hip plaster cast. As a photojournalist he has fancy zoom lenses to complement the basic snooping tool – binoculars. Jimmy and his diverse neighbors’ rear apartment windows all open up to a courtyard where residents plant gardens, make sculptures, do exercises, and entertain guests. Jimmy spends so much time observing his neighbors, he learns their occupations, their personalities, and their secrets.
I can relate to the thrill of spying on others. When as a kid I rode in the back seat of our car as Dad drove down two-lane country roads, I loved looking into the windows of strangers’ homes. Early evening lighting made for the best views and entertaining speculations. Was the blue glow from a TV soothing a lonely widow or an exhausted parent? Did dim yellow light mean a candlelit dinner for two? What about glaring white lights that flooded several rooms? Could it mean a birthday celebration or a kid home alone and afraid of the dark? Every window held different story possibilities.
Now we live in a condo, and our second floor kitchen window has a front row view of the courtyard and pool, a laundry room, and the mailbox area. I watch my neighbors go to and from work, walk their dogs, lounge at the pool, or chat near the mailboxes. I have, like Jimmy Stewart, given them nicknames as I guess about their private lives. There’s “T-Squared,” a young guy who spends hours tanning and texting at the pool in hopes of winning the George Hamilton Lookalike Award. There’s “BB,” an older well-endowed, talkative busybody who goes braless and knows all the condo scoop, and “Solo,” a longtime resident who lurks poolside with his ever-present red plastic cup. And “Cookie Monster’s Owner” whose dog snarls at pets and people alike. (BB told me Cookie Monster once bit the guy who lives right below me). There’s soft-spoken “Poodle Man”, a smiling, kind guy with a well-groomed dog. “ER” has the apartment across the courtyard from me. He uses a walker, doesn’t respond to health workers knocking on his door, and gets wheeled out on ambulance stretchers twice a month.
Although I’ve never suspected anyone in our complex of killing his/her spouse (as in Rear Window), a guy did die during the pandemic lockdown. His death went undiscovered for days! Also, the day we first moved into our unit, an angry couple screamed at one another from the sidewalk outside our condo fence until a resident called the cops. As I lugged boxes of photo albums and kitchenware up my stairs, I heard a female from the sidewalk yell, “Hide behind your damn gate, assholes!” I had a small pang of worry that day; however, our apartments apparently hide only tiny dramas.
I like to wash dishes and survey the area outside my window. I notice when a resident has her grandkids visit and they take over the pool area. I take note of who swims laps on a regular basis, who reads in the loungers, who barbecues. I remember when Solo put tiny strips of paper on all of our door clips inviting us to his poolside birthday celebration one Sunday afternoon. It was a BYOB affair with chips and dip provided. Several of us showed up while Solo held court and someone in the pool blasted oldies from phone speakers. For a little while those of us there acted like neighbors who knew and cared about each other, yet most days we do little more than wave howdy.
Sometimes I create back stories for those I see from my window. Did Solo once have an affair with BB but broke up with her after she told her next-door neighbor about his collection of bizarre Troll dolls? Is T-Squared texting conspiracy theories to Alex Jones’ Infowars? Will Poodle Man plot to poison Cookie Monster?
Just silly scenarios that stem from too many Netflix nights. Too many thrillers and true-crime dramas. As we start venturing out beyond our homes and apartments, will we get to know our neighbors better, or will we maintain our safe, private ways? Is it not easier and less messy to view others from a distance, choosing mystery over fact, imagination over reality?
My great-aunt Lena, born Karolina Katharina in 1890, was one of nine children born to hard-working dirt farmers in Kansas. In her youth and early adulthood, she was demurely beautiful, with large brown eyes and long brown hair that went nearly to her waist . She was a humble soul and quiet by nature. She had the sweetest heart of anyone I have ever known.
The story goes that in her twenties she married a good-looking man from Chicago. They lived there, and Lena soon got a job as a seamstress at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. She made draperies, napkins, and tablecloths for the hotel when she began her life as a city girl. She was extremely talented and made all of her own clothes, coats, slips, robes, and nightgowns too. In fact, I only knew her to have two store bought dresses in her lifetime- one for my brother’s wedding and one for mine.
Aunt Lena had only been married a year or two when that handsome husband went out late one night for the proverbial ‘pack of cigarettes’ and never came back. Heartbroken and afraid of living in the city by herself, she packed up and moved to Amarillo, Texas to be near her sister, my grandma Martha Margaretha. It would be years before she would divorce that wayward husband, and somewhere inside, Aunt Lena made a vow to never fall in love again. She never did.
She rode the train from Chicago to Amarillo bringing with her a large, black steamer trunk packed full of her belongings. She also had a small, light brown suitcase with a darker brown stripe woven into the fabric that held her clothes. Everything she owned came with her on the train, except her faithful, black, push-peddle Singer sewing machine, which would arrive at a later date.
I remember well the small efficiency apartment she first lived in after arriving in Amarillo. Lena made do with her tiny apartment complete with a hot plate, and Murphy pull down bed. Complaining was not in her vocabulary, so Lena settled in, got a job, found the bus route, and waited patiently to move closer to her sister.
My daddy, J.C. Claughton, Jr., was a lot of things, but one of his best qualities was being faithful to visit his parents and Aunt Lena once or twice a week. He would drink coffee with them before work or stop by with some groceries on his way home from work. He was loving and faithful for all of their days.
My Grandma and Grandpa lived in a small duplex, apartment A. Side B finally became available, and Aunt Lena was given first choice. When she moved into apartment B, life truly began for Aunt Lena. Most of her eighty-eight years on this earth were spent in that little, stucco duplex on Hayden Street, twenty-five steps away from her bossy, older sister. Grandma and Grandpa had only one child, my dad, and Aunt Lena, never having children of her own, loved my dad something fierce. She adored him, and when my brother and I came along, she adored us as well.
Aunt Lena never said no to us, but she and grandma would go round and round when Lena would get tired of her bossiness and rules. If Grandma prepared a Sunday lunch, she would tell Lena what side dish to bring. If Grandma invited her friends over for Canasta, she would sometimes accuse Aunt Lena of cheating.
“I see you looking at my cards, Lena!” Grandma would announce.
“I don’t need to see your cards to win the game.” Lena returned.
“Well then, keep your eyes on your own cards.”
“Same goes for you.”
And this would go on until one of them either quit the game or Grandma would say lunch was ready. I’ve been witness to Aunt Lena throwing her cards on the table and stomping off.
“I’m going home. I don’t have to put up with your nonsense.” And she would walk the twenty-five steps home to duplex B.
Aunt Lena bought a television and Grandma had a phone line with an old black rotary phone, so they shared both the TV and the phone for the entirety of their duplex days. If Aunt Lena needed to use the phone she would have to ask Grandma, and if Grandma wanted to watch one of her ‘programs’, like Lawrence Welk, she would have to ask Aunt Lena. And I do recall Grandma paid for the newspaper, which Lena could read the next day when Grandma was finished. The two sisters negotiated their daily life decisions as sisters are prone to do.
Aunt Lena always let my brother and me have a Coca Cola at her house. (Those small 6 oz. Coke’s that came in a bottle.) Jimmy and I would be in her tiny little kitchen shaking up our coke bottles and spraying them into our mouths. Once, I recall a rather messy incident when one of us, probably my brother, shook his Coke but missed his mouth.
“Watch this,” he said. And he stuck his thumb in the coke bottle and began to shake it.
“I bet you can’t do this,” he taunted me.
And all of a sudden he missed his mouth spewing the sticky, brown liquid all over Aunt Lena’s kitchen-walls, curtains, ceiling, and floor. We stood frozen in time with our shoes stuck to the floor when Lena walked into the room. She never told on us, just helped us clean up and made us promise not to do it again.
Aunt Lena would patiently let me sit at her treadle sewing machine and sew straight lines on fabric until she taught me how to make skirts and aprons. I would have to sit up close so my feet could touch the foot pedal giving me the control. I would watch Aunt Lena take down her hair in the evenings and brush it, then braid it into one long plait down her back. In the mornings, she would unbraid, brush, then put her hair into a bun at the base of her neck. Always. No variations.
When my brother and I came by for a visit, we were supposed to go to Grandma’s house first. Grandma would get terribly jealous if we saw Aunt Lena before her. Aunt Lena would wave at us through her front window curtains as we bounded up the steps to the duplex and wait patiently until Grandma had her fill of us. This was another of Grandma’s rules: she wanted her grandkids all to herself at least for a little while. Aunt Lena never complained, but we knew it seemed unfair.
Aunt Lena was a sweet and pure soul. I never knew her to say an unkind word about anyone, not even when she was mad at Grandma. Her life was small in a lot of ways. She never drove a car, always depending on the bus, my dad or walking. On grocery day, she and Grandma would pull a little cart up the sidewalk, three blocks away to the Furr’s Grocery Store. And after their shopping, they would take turns pulling the loaded cart all the way home.
My Dad, till the day Aunt Lena died, would slip money into her checking account to supplement her small Social Security stipend. He wanted her to feel independent. She and grandma both, as they got older, would hand a blank, signed check to the grocery cashier and let her fill out the check and then they would show Daddy the receipt so he could balance their accounts.
Daddy was insistent that Grandma and Aunt Lena travel with us on our summer vacations-camping in Colorado. Although anxious about heights, Lena was a trooper and participated in everything. Once, we all rode the train from Silverton to Durango Colorado, and Aunt Lena refused to look out over the mountains, praying loudly and repeating, “Oh, the heights, the depths and the altitude! God help us all.”
Though Aunt Lena never spent money on herself, she was always generous to my dad, brother, and me. On our birthdays, she would choose a card from her box of all-occasion cards from Woolworths, and sign it: Love, Aunt Lena, slipping a crisp five-dollar bill inside.
As Aunt Lena got older, her fear and anxiety took over in ways my father could not understand. She refused to wear her dentures after going through the painful process of teeth removal. She refused to get hearing aids although she couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. And eventually, she refused to eat anything besides what she wanted: Coca Colas, peppermint candies and Tapioca pudding. And at eighty-eight, won’t we all have earned the right to eat, live and love exactly as we wish?
Dear, sweet, great Aunt Lena passed from this earth forty-four years ago. I have her black, steamer trunk still packed with her sewing shears and threads, lots of old photo albums from my dad and assorted miscellaneous items from my youth. When I pass by that old trunk, I think about a shy, young woman riding the train from Chicago to Amarillo. I think about her bravery to live life when many things seemed so scary. And I think about the way she loved us with unconditional love and devotion.
Even if our worlds are small, and the ones we love turn out not to love us back; even if we have bossy siblings and no children to care for us in our old age, we can still have kindness and choose to love those close to us. We can dare to be brave even when it hurts. We can be generous of spirit and share our worldly belongings, knowing there is always enough for everyone. Aunt Lena seemed to know all of this intuitively and perhaps that is why she was loved so dearly.
I grew up a faithful patron of the Liberty Theater and the Queen Cinema in Eunice, Louisiana where I saw almost every movie shown from 1960 through 1972 (beginning of ratings system). But I did not become an obsessive film fan until I saw Funny Girl in 1968.
Barbra Streisand’s unique voice and dramatic delivery made me want to stay for the 8:30 feature that followed the 6:00 p.m. one I’d just seen. At first “The Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” were my favorite songs. My sisters and I pantomimed these tunes at home while Momma’s hi-fi in the den blasted through the ceiling speakers in the living room. After fourteen viewings, “My Man” (the one song filmed before a live audience) became my favorite. Barbra’s cool short haircut that framed her anguished face and her long drop pearl earrings were spotlit. All but her fabulous face, sleek hands and long fingernails seemed to disappear into the blackness of the stage. She began the torch song fighting back tears with a halting delivery. But her strength grew as her voice got steadier and louder until she threw out both arms and belted the last line with a power that made me hold my breath while my thirteen-year-old heart ached for reasons it could not yet comprehend.
The movie earned eight Oscar nominations and Barbra got the film’s one Best Actress win for her portrayal of the incredible Fanny Brice. Her self-deprecating humor and durable-as-rubber-tubing ambition spoke to my wallflower teen angst, and her rise to stardom despite her nontraditional beauty gave me hope.
I was an extra shy girl with a limping left leg and a skinny, spastic left arm. I hid my mild cerebral palsy from most folks until a situation required the use of two healthy limbs. In my mind, I clapped with a hand and a claw. If I had to hold two paper cups at the same time, I’d touch the sides together in hopes my steady right hand could keep my shaky left from spilling the cups’ contents. Yet even if luck shone on me and very little water splashed over the rim, my CP hand could involuntarily squeeze the stupid flimsy cup and dump half its contents onto the floor.
Watching Funny Girl gave me hope of reaching my life goal of being the first big movie star to emerge from Eunice, Louisiana or become Barbra Streisand’s new best friend – two equally worthy aspirations.
So I spent nights at Grandma’s house where I could walk to the Queen Cinema three blocks away, and no adult needed to drop me off or pick me up. In the dark theater with my long-lasting Toostsie Roll, I could watch Barbra sing and roller skate her way to fame and later have Omar Sharif kiss her neck while he seduced her with dinner and song.
My naive self believed that I (like my movie idol) could conquer all challenges. My small Cajun existence could tell me I was weak and awkward and invisible to the boys I had crushes on. But in my mind I’d be wearing a red and black sailor top with black bloomers and stockings, and I’d have two long graceful arms of the same length extended while I threw my head back and twirled on an empty stage and sang, “Have you guessed yet/ Who’s the best yet/ If you ain’t I’ll tell you one more time/ you bet your last dime./ I am the greatest, the greatest star!”
The Liberty and Queen were like my second home, and Funny Girl made that home a portal of possibilities. Barbra inspired me to be braver. Maybe I had a crooked left side and I wore uncool corrective shoes. Maybe my hair frizzed out and my pimples surprised me on the most inconvenient days. My parents misunderstood me, my sisters ganged up against me, and the boys at school made me wish I could crawfish my way into a mud home whenever they were near. But Barbra had not listened to critics or let rejection stop her from conquering Broadway and Hollywood in her early twenties. She faced off with anyone who tried to rain on her parade. Her talent astounded me, but more importantly her confidence and tenacity made the teenage me feel less like a loser. Barbra Streisand’s movies and albums made me believe I was one of those “luckiest people in the world.”
I’ve never been a good sleeper. As a baby I’m quite sure I awoke every few hours wanting to be walked and patted, fed and talked to. As a toddler and up until I went to school, I would lay on my bed at naptime and draw on the wall or wipe my boogers in a design hoping no one would notice. By the way, they did notice and soon I no longer had to lay there ‘trying’ to go to sleep.
I’m still not a good napper. I’ve tried, but it rarely happens for me and when it does, the neighbor’s lawn service pulls up and 3 guys with a mower, weed eater and leaf blower jump out to attack his yard and assault the air waves, leaving me resentful and just a tad grouchy.
I can’t remember ever sleeping past 6:30 a.m., although I probably did in college. Once on daylight savings time, lightening turned off our electricity, stopping my alarm clock, and I woke up at 8:00, disoriented and late for work.
I tell myself I’m going to sleep in, and at 5:50 a.m. my eyes pop open and I can’t wait to brew some coffee. I think I will turn off my alarm and fall back to sleep, but I lay there thinking of all the things I could accomplish if I would just go ahead and get up. I love being up early before anyone else is awake.
I do have guidelines for myself. For example, if I wake up at 3:00 a.m., I make myself try to go back to sleep. If I’m still awake at 4:00, I wait till 4:30 and then get up.
If I wake up at 4:00 a.m., I make myself lay there until five. 5:00 a.m. is my earliest time to get out of bed, but I have started the coffee pot at 4:30, so basically my guidelines are nil and void.
The last few years I worked, my school was on the north side of town, meaning I needed to leave my house at 6:45-7 a.m. in order to miss the morning traffic. I was in bed by 9:00 p.m. and read until 9:30, then lights out. I jumped out of bed at 4:30 every morning and repeated the cycle. I have tried to blame my early rising on those last few years, but friends, I’ve been retired since 2010. Clearly, that is not my problem.
If we are on vacation, I can never sleep the first night in a strange hotel room. Before I get ready for bed my mind goes toward bed bugs, lumpy pillows and unclean sheets. Neurotic sounding, isn’t it? I check the bed, check the air conditioner, check the pillow, make sure I’m on the best side of the bed, and then I can crawl in.
Hospitals, cars, planes, and trains? No zzzz’s.
Hammocks, lounge chairs by the pool, and cruise ships? Wide awake and rubbernecking, so as not to miss anything.
I like my own bed. I have a mental checklist that asks, is it dark enough? Cool enough?
Do I have something to read? Ear plugs? Bite guard? My mind asks these questions and explores situations, always jabbering away when I should be snoozing. Shhh, I tell myself, but I’m just not a good sleeper.
No discussion about sleep would be complete without talk of the dreaded CPAP machine. Once upon a time, Boo used a CPAP. If you have ever been near one, you know what I’m about to say is true. When Boo had it on properly, it was quiet, steady, and reliable. However, some CPAPS have ‘user error’ when it slips sideways, or there is trouble putting it on in the dark. When this happens, it is extremely loud. Loud like a howling wind, tornado, and roaring ocean, all at once. This occurred more than once and when it did, Boo would use a few choice words, rip it off his face and fall back into a dead sleep. Meanwhile, I would be shockingly awakened with the roaring sound, curse words and velcro ripping apart. I would sometimes be wide awake until dawn, praying not to smother him in his blissful slumber.
In my golden years, will I be one of the little old ladies at the home who bothers the night shift or complains that I have been waiting for the cafeteria to open since 4:00 a.m. wanting my coffee? Maybe they won’t be able to find me a roommate who will adapt to my schedule saying, “She’s a little particular about bedtimes.” And I surely do not want someone who likes to talk in the mornings, because that is my sittin’ ugly time, and one cannot sit ugly and talk at the same time.
All this talk about my future as a nursing home resident may keep me up tonight. One thing I do know for sure is that no matter what time I go to sleep, I will always wake up between 3 and 6 a.m. I’m a creature of habit, and I happen to love mornings. But the plain and simple truth is, I’ve never been a good sleeper.
Before we downsized to life in a condo, we lived a half block from a Catholic university. The campus was the perfect size for my early morning dog walks with Millie. We got up and out before classes began and made a big loop around the school, enjoying sun rise and the shady green areas. We didn’t see many people, mostly the groundkeepers and a few eager freshmen, with a rare professor spotting.
I noticed that other neighborhood walkers would often return my head nod, smile, or wave after they had seen me a few times. Some were natural greeters and said hi the first time our paths crossed, but most needed to get used to Millie and me first.
As for the students, the return greetings for my outreach attempts were about fifty percent. Often the young people wore ear buds and looked sleep deprived as they passed us. I’d catch whiffs of soap, body spray, or pot as they ignored my half wave or “Morning.”
One September morning a gangly girl with jet black hair and rumpled shirt and jeans gave us an earnest, “Hey there.” I gave her a large smile and Millie wagged her tail.
“What a great dog! Can I pet her?”
“Sure! Her name’s Millie.”
The girl got down on one knee and gave my energetic dog two-handed pets and ear rubs with praise like “You a sweetie! Good girl, Millie!”
We chatted and she told me she was a freshman and terribly missed her dog back home. She did not mind that an excited Millie pushed her dark-rimmed glasses off her nose. The girl left us with a huge smile as she repositioned her backpack and headed to a campus coffee shop.
I never ran into this sweet souled girl again even though Millie and I both wished we had.
We got regular waves from almost every person driving a cart loaded with gardening tools, but never ever from a blonde woman who seemed to be a groundskeeper supervisor. She drove her cart with a no-nonsense demeanor and wore a crisp, clean khaki uniform. Her short, curly hair hid under a university cap, and her snug shirt stayed tucked in her pants with her plain black no-name sneakers completing her all work/no play look. Once she caught me letting Millie off leash to run through a small overgrown field on the edge of campus.
“Dogs on leash!” she snapped.
“Sorry,” I said as I used a dog treat to get Millie to head back to me. After that I let Millie off leash only on holidays and weekends when I wouldn’t run into Ms. Mary Sunshine.
In the early evenings we took Millie for another university stroll and came to know other dog owners. We shared stories about the campus, and none of us had ever seen the blonde groundskeeper smile. She was known for her frowns and dog fussing. So it wasn’t just me and Millie.
For awhile I tried to get more than a scowl from Mary Sunshine, but I soon gave up and avoided her as much as I could. Who wants to encounter someone who glares at your smiles, looks right through your waves, and acts deaf to your, “Good Mornings”? I told myself she was the campus curmudgeon who hated her job and other living individuals as well.
On a random weekday morning Millie and I were finishing our university loop when I noticed Mary Sunshine near a small gas pump encircled by a chainlink fence that the university cart-drivers used. She knelt and shook dry cat food into a small bowl. I could make out a sweet voice calling the cats to breakfast. I couldn’t hear her exact words, but the tone was high-pitched and welcoming. I slowed Millie’s walk and gave Mary Sunshine alone time with her three cats who curled in and around her feet as she kept up the tender sounds.
I had noticed cats there before when Millie pulled on her leash as we walked past the gas pump, but I would never have guessed who was filling those water and food bowls.
I did not try greeting the blonde woman even after I learned she had a tender side. But I did think of her differently. She reminded me to be less quick-to-judge others, even people with permanent frowns and angry eyes. To stop jumping to conclusions about those who dress, speak, walk, or look at the world a certain way. A Mary Sunshine will not necessarily deserve my sarcastic name-calling. Maybe we all have a hidden softness that’s reserved for secret times with a selected few.